I wanted to like "Atomic Blonde" much more than I actually did.
This style-heavy action-thriller follows a game of spy vs. spies in 1989 Berlin, days before the Wall would come down. Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a skilled British operative who's sent to Berlin to track down a list that contains the names and cover identities of every undercover MI6 agent. She also has to uncover the identity of a double agent whose been feeding British intelligence to the Soviets.
Along the way, Lorraine has to work with a loose-cannon MI6 agent (James McAvoy) and a French spy (Sofia Boutella), unsure if she can trust either of them. She's also under the gun from her superiors (Toby Jones and James Faulkner) and a gruff CIA boss who keeps tabs on her progress (John Goodman).
Think of "Atomic Blonde" as the first "Mission: Impossible" movie crossed with "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," blended with James Bond and "Miami Vice." But if "Atomic Blonde" is like any Bond movie, it's "Skyfall," when we see 007 as a beat-up, half-drunken mess who still manages to get the job done.
Theron does great work in this movie. She paints Lorraine as a legitimate badass who can handle herself in any fight, behind the wheel of a car in a high-speed chase and in the bedroom. But we also see her pay the price for her violent encounters.
The first time we see Lorraine she isn't in glamorous clothing or dueling with a team of Soviet henchmen, she's soaking in a tub full of ice water, drinking a glass of vodka to dull her evident pain. The bruises that adorn her face and body are evidence of her previous night's work.
The fact that a 41-year-old female actor was given the lead role in an action movie is positive progress for women in Hollywood but, unfortunately, "Atomic Blonde" feels more like male fantasies disguised as feminism than actual feminism.
Lorraine is certainly strong and independent but her character is defined by positive masculine attributes, like being physically strong and being able to fight and kill without remorse. We also see her take male and female lovers, especially the latter, which is shown in more graphic detail. Obviously, I have no problem with a character being gay, straight or bisexual — but I'm forced to ask why female action heroines are more likely to be engaged in gay sex scenes on screen than male action heroes.
Could you imagine James Bond stopping a mission to make out with Q? Of course not. But when it's an attractive female character, you can never rule out the probability of a love scene between she and another attractive female character. "Atomic Blonde" was written and directed by men (and based on a graphic novel created by men) and Lorraine feels more like a male fantasy than a living, breathing woman.
The neon-tinged look of "Atomic Blonde" and its constant soundtrack of 1980s electro-pop anthems like Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and New Order's "Blue Monday" give the film a place among the pantheon of modern action movies reaching for that Michael Mann aesthetic.
I mostly liked "Atomic Blonde." It's a lot of fun watching Theron moving from one action-packed scrape to the next, all while wearing fantastic costumes and oversized sunglasses. And the cast is fantastic. McAvoy continues to be underrated as a master of renegade characters, Boutella continues to impress me after her turn in "The Mummy" and Goodman and Jones are among the most reliable actors working today.
The action scenes are well directed, especially a lengthy sequence toward the end that sees Lorraine protecting an unarmed man from an onslaught of Soviet thugs. A fist fight between Lorraine and a villain in that sequence ranks among my favorite fight scenes in movie history, with both fighters staggering to throw the next punch and audibly panting because they are so exhausted.
But, in the end, I felt like I'd seen it all before.
Release Date: July 28, 2017
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad (based on "The Coldest City" by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart)
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella